Acclaimed comic book writer and filmmaker Greg Pak has been taking the comics world by storm ever since his lauded run on Marvel’s various Hulk series, penning the pivotal storylines Planet Hulk and World War Hulk. More recently, Pak has taken the reigns of DC’s Batman/Superman and Action Comics and revived popular Gold Key character Turok in Dynamite’s Turok: Dinosaur Hunter.
In addition to his comics work, Pak recently produced his second short science fiction film for Independent Television Services’ (ITVS) web series Futurstates. Renegade Cinema contacted Pak to talk about the film, Happy Fun Room, robots, child actors, science fiction and the writer/filmmaker’s upcoming projects:
Renegade Cinema: This is your second short film for Futurestates if I’m not mistaken. How did you get involved with Futurestates, and was there anything about it which attracted you as a writer/filmmaker?
Greg Pak: A few years back ITVS’s Karim Ahmad reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in submitting a proposal for a short sci-fi film to this new Futurestates series he was launching. He knew of my feature film Robot Stories, which was an anthology film about love, death, and robots, which I think got me in the door.
I immediately loved what Karim and ITVS were doing with Futurestates. The idea was to support short science fiction that dealt with the real world in some interesting, provocative, emotionally honest way. That’s all right up my alley — it’s what I was trying to do with Robot Stories and pretty much what I’ve been trying to do in most of my comics work as well. So I had a great time working with ITVS and making my first short with them, Mister Green, which started Tim Kang in a story about a man facing massive change as the repercussions of catastrophic climate change hit. And then a couple of years later, ITVS funded the iPad app version of my graphic novel Vision Machine. And now here’s Happy Fun Room! I love Karim and the folks at ITVS — they’ve made so much possible for me.
RC: Futurestates is similar in concept to the British sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror, and both projects seem to represent a new approach to science fiction which is more focused on the genre’s value as metaphor rather than rehashing generic conventions. Do you think this is signaling a change in how a lot of contemporary creators are approaching science fiction? And if so how do you see yourself fitting into that movement?
GP: It’s an interesting thing. Back in 2002, when I finished Robot Stories, there weren’t a ton of low budget independent science fiction films. But I think sci-fi of all kinds has permeated the general culture much more since then. I mean, since Star Wars, we’ve had constant big budget sci-fi fantasy movies coming our way. But there’s a range in the kinds of sci-fi that’s gotten funded in recent years that’s pretty refreshing. I’m not pretending it’s anything new — there’s always been great, emotionally honest science fiction exploring more real world situations and metaphors. But maybe the prevalence of digital filmmaking tools has made it a little easier for more folks to dive into it.
RC: Happy Fun Room isn’t your first film about robots. Is there something about robots as a concept that interests you? Are there any ideas you’re exploring through that?
GP: Heh. Yeah, I guess robots are part of the backstory of Happy Fun Room, aren’t they? I’ve written a ton of stuff with robots or cyborgs as protagonists over the years. Probably just because robots are cool, right? But also because when you talk seriously about robots and artificial intelligence, you end up talking about all the big existential questions of who we are and what makes us human and what we’re on this world to do. Happy Fun Room doesn’t deal with robots in that kind of a way. But it does feature existential crisis in a big way!
RC: Happy Fun Room also features child actors. I’ve heard horror stories from many a film sets about working with children. Where there any special difficulties in that area when you were making this film?
GP: I had a tremendous time with those child actors. They were just great, fun, smart kids and a lot of fun to work with. Lilyana Cornell played the little girl and Sebastian Martinez played the boy. And even in that initial audition, I could tell they were both going to nail it Lilyana had the really tough job — the key scene called for her to cry on camera. That’s not easy for adult actors to do. But I could tell from the minute I met her that she’s the kind of kid whose face shows everything she’s thinking. If she feels something, it’s right there on her face. She’s also a smart kid who understands the art and process of acting, so she understood what that moment was about and was working on her own at getting to that emotionally true place at the right time. To help with all that, my producer Nekisa Cooper, my cinematographer Sam Chase, my assistant director Joe Cicarella and I built the shooting day so that we shot Lilyana’s half of that scene first so we wouldn’t waste the big emotional impact of experiencing that moment for the first time when the camera was pointed away from her. And she was just tremendous.
Another thing we did was just roll the camera on the kids at times when they were just fooling around — or start the camera rolling before I said “action” or let it roll a while after I said “cut.” I also gave them games to play with each other — you know that hand slapping game, where you put your hands just above someone else’s hands and that person tries to slap your hands? The kids were playing a brother and sister, so I had them play that game to get into that goofy, giggly mood the scenes called for. Things like that seemed to work — just little things to relax folks and get them ready for the actual moments in the movie. Honestly, it’s pretty much the same as working with adult actors — just trying to help folks get to that moment of emotional honesty.
RC: Was there a special idea or event that sparked the concept behind Happy Fun Room, which is a basically children’s show in a dystopic near-future?
GP: I’d had a general idea for doing a kid’s show set in the future a few years back, but I actually was thinking of it more as pure satire at the time. I was actually thinking of it as a series of super short bits that would satirize what would happen if a genuinely libertarian ideological movement took over the country. So instead of teaching kids to share, the show would teach kids that selfishness is a virtue. I never made those shorts, maybe because the idea was a little bit of a cheap shot. But I still had this idea of a kid’s show in the future. And when I got together with the other filmmakers working on this season of Futurestates, I started seeing how it could work.
All the filmmakers involved in this season were called on to do something special and create a shared fictional world that all our films could inhabit. If you go to futurestates.tv, you can explore all those different films with supporting material that shows some of that bigger world. So while we were developing this world, it became clear that there would be a traumatic event in the history of the country — a time of terrible economic and social crisis, with actual warfare in the streets. And I started imagining what a children’s show would look like if it was borne out of that situation. And Happy Fun Room started to come together.
RC: Obviously, you have your current comic book work writing Batman/Superman and Action Comics For DC, Eternal Warrior for Valiant, and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter for Dynamite Entertainment, but is there anything coming up—film, comic, or anything else-related—that you want people to know about?
GP: Right now I’m in the middle of the huge Superman Doomed crossover for DC. It’s been a total blast and I hope y’all jump on board! My Action Comics run is part of it, as is Charles Soule’s Superman/Wonder Woman and the last couple of issues of Scott Lobdell’s Superman.
And then I’m launching the next storyline for Turok: Dinosaur Hunter that starts with issue #5. It’s illustrated by the great Takeshi Miyazawa and involves our Native American hero encountering the pteranodon-flying daughter of Genghis Khan. Yes, you read that right. That issue hits next month. Preorder today!
And finally, I’m writing the new Storm ongoing for Marvel, drawn by Victor Ibañez! I’ve loved Storm forever and can’t believe I’m having the chance to write her very first solo ongoing ever. It’s a blast and it starts in July. Again, ask your local comics shop to preorder it for ya!
RC: Do you see yourself tackling another feature film in the future?
GP: Absolutely. But I’m patient — the film industry works approximately a hundred times more slowly than the comics industry, so I know it’ll take a bit of a while. But I’ve got a dream project or two that I’ll make some day, by hook or by crook.
Happy Fun Room is about the traumatized host of a futuristic children’s show (Cindy Cheung) attempting to cope with falling ratings and the horror of her own past. Happy Fun Room can been seen here, along with all the other sci-fi shorts in the Futuresites series.